En­trepreneur: Mar­ket­ing that touches peo­ple’s lives

Joe Pub­lic United has firmly es­tab­lished it­self as one of South Africa’s lead­ing ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing agen­cies, thanks to its fo­cus on the growth of its peo­ple, its clients and the coun­try.

Finweek English Edition - - News - By Glen­neis Kriel

ad­ver­tis­ing agency Joe Pub­lic United this year took eight gold Lo­eries, was crowned the Agency of the Year and won the Medium Busi­ness En­trepreneurs of the Year Award against 189 other busi­ness en­tries in the En­trepreneur of the Year® com­pe­ti­tion spon­sored by San­lam and Busi­ness Part­ners.

But it has been a tough jour­ney to the top. Pepe Marais, co-founder of the com­pany, spoke to fin­week.

What did you do be­fore start­ing Joe


Grow­ing up poor – by old South Africa white stan­dards – my goal as a school boy was to be­come a civil en­gi­neer, a job I equated with lots of money and a bet­ter life. I changed my mind af­ter a chance en­counter with a graphic de­signer at an air force base in Rundu, Namibia, while on my way home af­ter fin­ish­ing my two years of com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice.

Up un­til then, I had never imag­ined it pos­si­ble to make a liv­ing from my cre­ativ­ity. So, af­ter the army, I did a graphic de­sign course at the Ruth Prowse School of Arts where I fin­ished top of my class each year. From there I started work­ing for an ad­ver­tis­ing agency.

Why did you start

your own com­pany?

Gareth Leck and I launched Joe Pub­lic in 1998 to make ad­ver­tis­ing more trans­par­ent and ac­ces­si­ble to the per­son on the street. We came up with an ad­ver­tis­ing model that al­lowed peo­ple to or­der rare, medium or well-done ideas from a menu, like you would or­der steak at a restau­rant. Peo­ple would walk into our diner-like shop in Loop Street, Cape Town, give us a brief­ing and re­ceive their work a few days later.

Where did you re­ceive start-up


We tried to get an in­vestor, but they wanted an 80% stake in the com­pany which did not ap­peal to us. So in­stead, we begged a com­puter off Hirt and Carter in re­turn for do­ing all our print­ing work through them. It was a great move for both par­ties, as we ended up with a state-of-the-art Ap­ple Mac that re­ally im­pressed our clients, while Hirt and Carter got lots of work from us.

The rest of the op­er­a­tions were self­funded, which was not that dif­fi­cult as we were in our mid-20s. Our over­heads and liv­ing ex­penses were low and our pre­vi­ous jobs did not pay that well. I lived off my wife’s salary for a few months to make up for the short­fall in earn­ings, while Gareth was sin­gle and roughly earned R3 000 when he quit his job.

The first year was re­ally tight, we did al­most ev­ery­thing our­selves and had to learn a lot about run­ning a busi­ness. By the sec­ond year, how­ever, we were net­ting about R1.5m in profit.

You and Gareth have been busi­ness part­ners for 20 years. How did that come about?

We were in­tro­duced as prospec­tive busi­ness part­ners in a pub in Cape Town. Af­ter a few min­utes of small-talk, it emerged that Gareth was a re­ally good surfer, which was kind of a deal breaker as I was a pad­dle skier and surfers tra­di­tion­ally look down on pad­dle skiers.

When I told Gareth I was a pad­dle skier, he started telling me this story of how he saved this “id­iot boat­man” who had wiped out into the har­bour wall at Mouille Point. He went into great de­tail about how he risked his life to save this man.

I could not be­lieve the story – not be­cause it was not true – but be­cause I was the man that was saved and never heard the full story, as I only re­gained con­scious­ness in hos­pi­tal. At that mo­ment, we re­alised that it was our destiny to “face the stormy ocean of ad­ver­tis­ing to­gether”.

How did you get your first clients?

Most of our clients were through word of mouth. Our first job was to create a logo for the fur­ni­ture com­pany Full House, which heard of us through a friend of a friend. We danced for joy when we re­ceived that first cheque of R850. These days, we don’t sell any cor­po­rate iden­ti­ties for un­der R500 000.

One of our big breaks came when Kala­hari.net gave us ten days to de­velop a TV ad­ver­tise­ment. We came up with this con­cept idea of Khoi San playing cha­rades to de­scribe fa­mous movie names. Kala­hari. net loved the idea and we, with our lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence, man­aged to put a pretty de­scent tele­vi­sion cam­paign to­gether in a very short space of time.

So it was smooth sail­ing from there?

No, we made a ter­ri­ble mis­take when we sold Joe Pub­lic to an Amer­i­can com­pany in 2001. I was at­tracted to the sale, be­cause they of­fered to take our “take­away” ad­ver­tis­ing con­cept abroad, with of­fices in New York. But the deal turned us into cor­po­rate boys and things went sour af­ter the econ­omy fell flat post-9/11.

Back in the South African of­fice, we were re­ally strug­gling to keep head above water, even more so when we were merged with an­other strug­gling com­pany in Jo­han­nes­burg. Dur­ing this time, the com­pany also lost a client that was re­spon­si­ble for over 40% of our rev­enue (af­ter one of our board mem­bers was fired and went to work for this client).

Over half our staff had to be re­trenched to ab­sorb the loss in rev­enue.

It took us three years of ne­go­ti­a­tions to buy the busi­ness back and by the time we got it back, it was bankrupt. It was a ter­ri­ble time for me, as ev­ery­thing was fall­ing apart – from my busi­ness to my mar­riage.

What car­ried you through these hard


At this one point, I had to judge ad­ver­tise­ments in a com­pe­ti­tion while feel­ing like a com­plete fail­ure. I woke up one morn­ing, looked at my­self in the mir­ror and for some un­known rea­son started do­ing pos­i­tive self-talk. I told

my­self out loud that I was okay. I have been do­ing this ever since. It has re­ally made a big dif­fer­ence in my life.

I have also started mak­ing huge lifestyle changes to try and be­come a more re­spon­si­ble world cit­i­zen and role model. I have done lots of cour­ses to try and im­prove my­self and have turned into a tee­to­taller and ve­gan.

How has the com­pany grown since you took it back?

At the time of buy­ing our busi­ness back in 2009, our rev­enue was R11m, run­ning at a net loss with 30 em­ploy­ees.

Last year, we had a turnover of R700m, gross prof­its of R218m and we have 287 peo­ple work­ing for us.

We also have over 20 clients who share our val­ues, rang­ing from AB InBev, An­glo Amer­i­can, De Beers, Mercedes-Benz and Shell to Chicken Licken, Ned­bank and Clover.

How has your busi­ness strat­egy

changed over the years?

We opened up a Joe Pub­lic with part­ners in Am­s­ter­dam around 2011 that still uses our orig­i­nal “take-away” model, with con­cept ideas sell­ing for around €11 000 a piece.

In SA the model no longer worked for us, as we and our clients have grown. Where we started out with rel­a­tively small clients, we were now serv­ing big­ger clients, who needed a new model to strate­gi­cally main­tain our high qual­ity of work.

The shift re­sulted in a more client­cen­tred ap­proach, with more em­pha­sis on un­der­stand­ing a client’s busi­ness and their clients, as the ul­ti­mate goal with ad­ver­tis­ing is to get peo­ple to con­nect with a spe­cific brand.

This has re­sulted in a lot of soul search­ing for me per­son­ally, and for us as a com­pany. Our line of busi­ness over time has given me the op­por­tu­nity to sit in board­rooms of over 20 of the great­est com­pa­nies in the coun­try. I have learnt that a per­son or busi­ness needs to stand for some­thing more than profit.

At Joe Pub­lic, we have iden­ti­fied growth as the main driver of our work – growth of our peo­ple, growth for our clients and work that con­trib­utes to a bet­ter SA. So, if you look at our ad­ver­tise­ments, you will see that they are pri­mar­ily aimed at creat­ing pos­i­tive emo­tions and as­so­ci­a­tions.

The prob­lem with the world to­day is that peo­ple are ap­proach­ing busi­ness up­side down. There is an un­healthy ob­ses­sion with prof­its, re­sult­ing in a greater di­vide be­tween the haves and the have-nots.

How has the com­pany struc­ture

changed since the buy-back in 2009?

Joe Pub­lic has evolved from a sin­gle of­fer­ing into a full-ser­vice, in­te­grated group of­fer­ing. Our digi­tised abovethe-line agency of­fers clients im­pact­ful, fully in­te­grated cre­ative so­lu­tions, while Joe Pub­lic Con­nect of­fers deep dig­i­tal spe­cialised so­lu­tions.

Joe Pub­lic En­gage fo­cuses on pub­lic re­la­tions, while Joe Pub­lic Shift is more fo­cused on strate­gic brand build­ing and de­sign. Joe Pub­lic Ig­nite is like a smaller ver­sion of the com­pany as a whole, fo­cus­ing on be­yond-the-line ad­ver­tis­ing and in­no­va­tion. For Jet, for ex­am­ple, the di­vi­sion cre­ated a new prod­uct in the form of women’s shoes with mes­sages inside for Mother’s Day.

Tell us about your School of Growth

which was opened this year.

Be­sides our in­volve­ment at two un­der­re­sourced and dis­ad­van­taged town­ship schools since 2007, we have cre­ated the School of Growth at the start of 2018. Most ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes only fo­cus on teach­ing IQ-based skills and im­par­ta­tion of knowl­edge. Our fo­cus is on pro­duc­ing well-rounded in­di­vid­u­als through a more holis­tic learn­ing ap­proach. Cour­ses have a strong fo­cus on build­ing emo­tional in­tel­li­gence, spir­i­tual in­tel­li­gence and per­sonal re­silience.

The school is cur­rently only open to our own staff, but will even­tu­ally be ex­tended to grad­u­ates, clients and other in­dus­try in­di­vid­u­als.

What do you see as the great­est

chal­lenge for you, and for the in­dus­try?

Com­pa­nies have be­come ex­tremely medi­ocre, ba­si­cally only gen­er­at­ing ideas to make money, in­stead of striv­ing for some­thing greater. While we have es­tab­lished our­selves as in­dus­try lead­ers, I feel there is still a lot of scope to im­prove our cre­ative prod­uct.

Top: On the set of the Ned­bank Re­tail com­mer­cial that en­cour­ages clients not to live for money.

Above: Gareth Leck and Pepe Marais, co-founders of Joe Pub­lic, have been busi­ness part­ners and friends for over 20 years.

Joe Pub­lic's of­fices in Bryanston, Jo­han­nes­burg. Right: Joe Pub­lic makes peo­ple re-eval­u­ate their re­la­tion­ship with money in their Money Maker ad­ver­tise­ment for Ned­bank.Be­low: Joe Pub­lic in­jects a lit­tle saucy South Africa into the Wild West with Boot­less Ban­dit Du­rango in Chicken Licken’s Rock My Soul 3 Straight ad­ver­tise­ment.

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